This finely and lavishly decorated bronze wine vessel is both in shape and decoration a perfect representative of the high and , mature ‘Anyang’ style that flourished from the mid-Shang period (c. 1600 – c. 1046 BC) in the then-capital of Yinxu in present-day Henan province. Although it displays the classic proportions of you of that period and exhibits the archetypal taotie design, it is very rare in its combination of these formal and decorative features, and it is difficult to find close counterparts. The remarkable condition of the piece further adds to its importance in the surviving canon.
You are believed to have been used as wine containers at ancestral rituals. The term, however, can be matched with this shape only since it was used for vessels of this form in the Northern Song (960-1127) catalogue Kaogutu (‘Illustrated antiques’), where eight you are illustrated and described. Wang Tao writes (Chinese Bronzes from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 2009, p. 62) that ‘in Shang oracle bone inscriptions and Western Zhou bronze inscriptions, we read that a vessel named you was employed as a bucket for aromatic wine used for sacrifice’. The character does, however, not occur in inscriptions on the archaic bronze vessels themselves, which may originally have been named differently.
The shape was in use since the later Erligang period (c. 1600 – c. 1400 BC) and can vary a lot, being much taller, cylindrical, square, bearing a long spout, or shaped like an animal with four legs. According to Robert W. Bagley (Shang Ritual Bronzes in the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Washington, D.C., 1987, p. 374), the wine vessels found in the tomb of Fu Hao, consort of King Wu Ding, the only undisturbed royal Shang tomb at Anyang so far, which has been variously dated from 1250 to c. 1200 BC, ‘do not include oval-bodied you, suggesting that the type did not appear until after the first century of the Anyang period’.
The basic form of our vessel, of pointed oval section, which became popular in the 12th and early 11th centuries BC, was modified again in the Western Zhou period (c. 1046 – 771 BC), when its profile became more compact and its oval section more squared. Yet this Shang form itself could be adjusted in so many ways that the variety of forms is breath-taking: contemporary examples can differ in proportion, section and profile, the alignment and shape of the handle, the shape of the knob, and the existence and shape of flanges. In addition, there were of course endless possibilities how to decorate such vessels. Two basic types seem, however, to be prevalent, one with overall decoration, but differing from our you in many respects; the other only partly decorated, but otherwise more closely related.
You with overall decoration are usually of broader, more exaggerated pear shape, the designs executed in higher relief, paired with more prominent flanges and wing-like hooks on either side of the cover. The handle is usually cast with animal heads in the round that hide the loops for attachment, and it may even be attached the opposite way, running from front to back. You of this type from the Sackler collection are illustrated in Bagley, op.cit., pls 64 and 65, with excavated and heirloom counterparts, figs. 64.2, 64.3, 64.4 and 64.6.
The more ovoid form of the present you and its linear decoration are closer to late Shang examples that are lacking the flanges and are decorated only with narrow bands of design around cover, shoulder and foot, leaving the main part of the body plain. On such you, the handle tends to have simple, openly visible loops without animal masks, seemingly similar to the present piece, although our you does bear masks on either side, albeit in miniature. Bagley also illustrates and discusses a range of such more sparsely decorated you of the late Shang period from the Sackler collection, op.cit., pls 68-70, and comparisons, mostly excavated, figs 68.5, 70.2, 70.3, 71.2 and 71.3.
The present you manifests a very rare combination of form and design. A comparable you that — like the present piece — combines features of both types, is illustrated in Higuchi Takayasu & Hayashi Minao, Fugendō Sakamoto Gorō Chūgoku seidōki seishō/Ancient Chinese Bronzes in the Sakamoto Collection, Tokyo, 2002, pl. 73 (fig. 1): it is similar in shape, has similar flanges and similar overall linear decoration, but a band of triangles around the cover and its handle is formed like twisted rope.
Another related you, which is lacking its handle, is in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, illustrated in Haiwai yizhen: Tongqi, xu/Chinese Art in Overseas Collections: Bronze [sic] II, Taipei, 1988, p. 52 (fig. 2): it also shows similar proportions and similarly shaped flanges with a central hook, and is very similarly decorated but in slight relief, again with triangles replacing the animal design around the cover. This you is also illustrated in Bagley, p. 398, fig. 70.1, as comparison to the sparsely decorated variant, which he suggests must derive from this ‘fully decorated parent type’.
Two further you may be mentioned as comparisons, with similar overall decoration in low relief on a plain ground, without leiwen background, one with rope-twist handle, from Shandong, illustrated in Jessica Rawson, Western Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Washington, D.C., 1990, p. 505, fig. 70.3, but attributed to the Shang dynasty; the other from the collection Earl Morse, almost identical to the last, but having lost its handle, sold in our London rooms, 14th November 1972, lot 227.
The large-scale taotie design on the present bronze displays the fully developed style of this motif, with C-shaped horns, pointed ears, and inward curved fangs. It extends into a body on either side of the central flange, so that it can be interpreted either as a single mask facing the viewer or as two kui dragons in profile, facing each other. Vadime Elisseeff, who discusses the development of this design in ‘A Lei in the Musée Cernuschi Collection’, Orientations, August 1992, p. 48, illustrates a very similar taotie motif, but with outward bent fangs. Related taotie masks as well as similar dragon motifs as seen on the shoulder and cover of our you, with open jaws and with down-pointing snouts, can already be seen on bronzes from the tomb of Fu Hao, see Yinxu Fu Hao mu/Tomb of Lady Hao at Yinxu in Anyang, Beijing, 1980, passim, both executed in this distinctive flat linear style and with design elements raised in relief an unusual technique in common with our you. A you of more slender form but closely related design and structure excavated from tomb 1022 at Xibeigang, Anyang, and now in the collection of the Insitute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica and dated to the first half of the Yinxu period is illustrated in King Wu Ding and Lady Hao, Art and Culture of the Late Shang Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2013, pl. III-4, p. 130. A ding tripod vessel with similar taotie and dragon designs in linear relief is illustrated in Christian Deydier, Les Bronzes Archaiques Chinois, op.cit., p. 85, and another similar taotie mask can be seen on a 12th century lei from the Sackler collection, Bagley, op.cit., pl. 8.
The distinguished provenance of the present you can be traced back into the first half of the last century. Huang Jun (1880-1952) was a Beijing art dealer, who in the 1930s and ‘40s published several bronze catalogues.
Dr. Anton F. Philips (1874-1951) was co-founder of the Philips Group of companies that started in Eindhoven in The Netherlands as a light bulb factory. An observatory in his home town, which he donated, is still named after him, the Dr. A.F. Philips Sterrenwacht. The important collection of archaic Chinese bronzes and other works of art that he had assembled, was sold in our London rooms in 1978.
Tai Jun Tse (J.T. Tai, 1910-1992) was one of the major Chinese art dealers of the 20th century, who started working at his uncle’s antiques shop in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, from around the late 1920s, opened his own shop in Shanghai in the 1930s and moved to New York in 1950 to open a gallery there. For decades he remained one of the major suppliers of Americas great collectors, among them Avery Brundage and Arthur M. Sackler.
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